The new organic standard is almost here.
Thursday, December 14, 2000
When is a potato a potato, and when is it a pesticide? Ask McDonald''s, whose popular salty french fries were pulled from restaurants six months ago after disgusted customers learned that the potatoes had been genetically engineered to produce the biopesticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in every cell of the plant.
Stories like these have resulted in widespread outcry against genetic engineering and the demand by consumers to have reliable organic alternatives. They will soon have their wish. After 10 laborious years of public commentary and revision, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is preparing to release--supposedly by the end of the year--the final draft of the long-awaited National Organic Program.
When the federal rule kicks in, an orange with an "organic" sticker grown in Florida will have been raised the same way as one grown in Southern California. Amber waves of no-spray grain in Montana will be as pesticide-free as organic crops in Illinois. Genetic engineering, irradiation, and sewage sludge--once included in the proposed rule--will be barred from organic food production.
Growers and processors won''t have to comply overnight with the new standard. States will have an 18-month phase-in period to figure out the rules and how to implement them. When the USDA standards finally are in effect, it will be illegal to put an organic sticker on any product that has not been certified according to the USDA standards. The effect could be, ironically, that by going mainstream, the price of playing in the organic market could overburden the very folks who began the organic movement: the small farmers.
Currently in California, farmers who wish to sell organically must register with the state and pay a sliding-scale fee ranging from $25-200. But registering with the state means a lack of inspections, aside from very spotty checks. Certification, conducted by private firms and nonprofits, is more meaningful. It consists of a detailed system of inspections, audits and spot checks to ensure growers are truly complying with standards. Right now it''s voluntary and runs from $250 up to several thousand dollars per farm.
The monetary difference to farmers between the two designations is borne out in the numbers. Statewide, 2,300 farmers are registered to sell organically. Of those, 1,200 are certified.
Brian Leahy, executive director of the nonprofit California Certified Organic Farmers, runs the largest certifying organization in the state, with 960 members. When the USDA rules come out, CCOF will be one of the private agencies enforcing the rule for the Feds. Leahy is concerned with the economic challenge of maintaining low certification costs for the smaller farmers.
"Our competition charges at least $1,800 a year to certify," he says, "but CCOF has a real commitment to organic farmers, including small farmers. Right now we are losing a lot of money only charging a couple hundred bucks. We are going to go broke if all these small producers come in and ask for certification."
CCOF is hoping to work with other nonprofits for funding, so that they can continue to ease the pain of certification for farmers.
"The government subsidizes so many other things--why not help with these costs so people can do the right thing for society?" asks Leahy. "There is a cost to society to use toxic biocides."
Other agencies are less concerned about the burden of certifying all farmers, citing an awareness of the problem and increased research dollars being allocated to serve the needs of small farms. Says Ray Green, organic program manager of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, "It''s not the federal program''s fault if the certifiers are losing money on the extremely small growers."
In five years the USDA will evaluate what it costs to certify farmers and come up with a fee to charge the certifiers. The USDA also pledges to ensure certifiers will charge reasonably. But what is "reasonable" to a large farm may push a smaller farmer out of the marketplace.
Green suggests that farmers can figure out ways to share the costs of certification, such as forming growers groups that invite a certifier to inspect fields and crops in the same area back-to-back, "instead of making five separate trips to the same area."
Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass., agrees with Green, and actually thinks the new standard will have an equalizing effect on organic farmers.
"Farmers will have a more level playing field because they won''t be competing in the marketplace with people who haven''t paid certification fees," she says. "Since they will be following the same standards, they will have the same costs to implement them."
Leahy emphasizes that many of the expenses associated with the organic growing process are due to a lack of research dollars allocated to organic methods. If enough money and priority is given to organics, he says, "We can support a system that works with wildlife, leaves a healthy soil for future generations, and feeds the world. What we have accomplished so far we have done for ourselves."